The Nieman Storyboard is a Harvard initiative that aims to promote innovative approaches to narrative in journalism featured a piece on my story about Somali piracy this week. Here’s an excerpt:
In WIRED’s recent take on Somali piracy, “Cutthroat Capitalism”, Scott Carney leads what might have been a meaty narrative straight into a piranha-infested stream. What he pulls out on the other side is a story picked clean of words, revealing foundational economic forces that drive modern day pirates, expressed as a series of well-dressed equations. It’s the narrative equivalent of one of those painted skeletons in a Dia De Los Muertos parade: the bones of a story coated with bright eye-catching paint.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a similar narrative approach for a story in WIRED about markets in human bodies and body parts. However, I’m learning that combining graphics and feature writing is can be a herculean task. Cutthroat Capitalism took almost six months to conceive, report and write. The piece appears elegant on the page only because it had to go through several stages of refining. First I had to collect enough information to write a full-length feature. Then we had to boil down all that research into nugget sized chunks that make room for an artist to create a beautiful layout. But there’s the rub. With only a few words for each idea, retaining a sense of narrative structure through it all is pretty difficult. In the pirate story we (my editor Ted Greenwald, designer Siggi Eggerson and several people on the art team) split the piece up into a single hostage situation–“the Attack, “The Negotiation” and “the Resolution”, which provided a base to build a larger argument about piracy in general.
However, not every story breaks down so easily. In the piece I’m writing now, I’m not looking at a single type of event, rather a dozen ways that the body gets funneled into commercial markets. Coming up with an elegant solution that encompasses the whole concept while also informing readers about broader theoretical implications of Red Markets is a narrative obstacle course. I still don’t know how I’m going to resolve the problem without removing key pieces of my argument.
For instance, take a look at how different the pitch for “Cutthroat Capitalism” is from the final product:
Everyone knows that you don’t negotiate with terrorists . . . but pirates? That’s a different story.
Case in point: Last September, the Ukranian freighter Faina, carrying scores of Russian tanks and grenade launchers plus a crew of 21, was overrun by 50 gunmen. Later, encircled by destroyers from the US, UK, and Russia, the attackers demanded $20 million in return for the boat and its contents. Last week, a helicopter dropped $3 million onto the deck. The brigands released the crew unharmed (though one had died of a heart attack during the ordeal). They dumped some guns overboard (presumably to pick up later) and slipped away to plan their next attack.
The Faina incident is by no means unique. Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa, attacked 111 commercial ships in 2008 alone — triple the previous year’s total. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and speedboats, they captured 14 vessels and took 300 hostages. In every case, the ship owner struck a deal, paying for the return of the ship and passengers, and letting the bandits go free.
The Somalis owe much of their success to a simple innovation. For centuries, pirates have operated in a familiar way: Board the target, take everything of value, and flee. That’s the way Indonesian and Caribbean marauders work to this day. Their counterparts in the Gulf of Aden, on the other hand, demand a ransom. The Faina’s $3 million settlement may seem small, but it’s the largest ever in such a caper — and, in any case, it’s a fortune compared to northeastern Somalia’s average per-capita income of $180 a year.
The new business model depends on a delicate dance among four parties: Somalis struggling to survive amid total economic collapse, shipping companies in need of protection, insurers trying to minimize payouts, and private security firms looking for work. It’s a cozy relationship in which everyone benefits. The pirates can make a living without demanding more than the market will bear. Shippers absorb the ransom as a minor cost of doing business; with typical cargo loads worth tens of millions of dollars — and ships upward of $125 million — a few million is small change. The insurance companies charge higher premiums, up from $900 to $9000 per trip within last few years multiplied by 20,000 ships passing through the Gulf annually. And the security companies earn a handsome fee for resolving a crisis. (Even the US Navy allegedly accommodates the pirates, directing them to harass its
enemies and leave its friends alone.)
In a way, the Gulf of Aden’s troubles are an unintended consequence of efforts to make the region safe for international trade. The notoriously unstable Horn of Africa is the gateway to the Suez Canal— so everyone is willing to pay to minimize risk. The outlaws start with outrageous demands, but they’ll settle for a modest purse. They know that harming crewmembers would bring their operations to an abrupt and bloody end, so they treat hostages well. Ship captains, like convenience-store clerks, are trained to surrender. They’re allowed to defend themselves with high-pressure water hoses, sound cannons, and evasive maneuvers, but “beyond that, we are not to resist,” says Jayant Kohli, who regularly sails the Gulf. And negotiators know they’ll settle on an agreeable sum sooner or later. “Paying ransom to criminals isn’t criminal in itself,” says Leslie Edwards, a former British Special forces commando who now works with Clayton Consultants, a security company. “We’re not there to solve the issue of piracy.”
I’d like to explore this symbiosis between piracy and globalization. I’m in touch with top security experts and former hostages. The reporting presents obvious challenges: several journalists have been kidnapped at the port of Ely, where pirates are based, and security companies are bound by confidentiality contracts. However, it looks likely that I’ll be able to travel through the Gulf of Aden on an escort boat. With attacks surpassing 100 a year, I might well see some action. I have placed enquires with the US, UK, and Indian navies and I’m working the back channels at several
Lit Search: The fate of the Faina and Somali piracy in general have been covered extensively in the daily press and in the trades (particularly shipping and insurance). However, most reports cover only breaking news. There have been a few magazine articles (The Spectator debunked a reported relationship between the pirates and Islamist militants, McLean’s profiled the chief of the Somali coast guard), but nothing that traces the business priorities that help make this new style of piracy so pervasive.
In the pirate piece, the story I pitched was meant to explore the collusion between insurance companies that hire hostage negotiators and pay ransoms and pirate gangs. Both pirates and insurance companies are getting rich off of lack of security in the Gulf of Aden, and they work together to keep the situation unstable. I’m not so sure how many readers got that out of the piece. Instead, I think readers got an understanding of the business model for pirates, not how the business model requires the consent of insurers. Of course, every pitch ends up being different than the final product. But the graphic format makes the changes much more radical.